John Donne's Holy Sonnets by John Donne

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Sonnet 10: Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

A mixture of the Petrarchan and Elizabethan forms, Sonnet 10 is structured with an abba, abba, cddc, ee rhyme scheme. Each of the first two quatrains consists of a single sentence that apostrophizes Death, and the concluding sestet shapes itself as a four-line question followed by a succinct though paradoxical answer in the concluding couplet to the central issue of the poem: Death should not be proud, because it, like human beings, “shalt die.” The poem is argumentative in tone, with the speaker attempting to humble Death partly in an effort to quell his own fears that he will physically die but partly to assert his spiritual faith that a greater eternal life makes a physical death ultimately insignificant. Ironically, in his argument that Death should not be proud, the speaker himself becomes rather arrogant, for in putting Death “in its place” he, the speaker, feels stronger and less fearful.

The first quatrain introduces the central metaphor of personifying Death as “mighty and dreadful” only to dismiss these qualities with a quick “for thou art not so” and the condescending adjective “poor,” as if Death simply does not understand how really unimportant it is in the grand scheme of God’s plans. The rhyme of “thee” and “me” establishes the conflict the speaker creates between himself and Death, and the word “overthrow” repeats the situational metaphor that Death and he are in a battle, the stakes of which, as the poem goes on to establish, are his life and immortal soul. The second quatrain indicates, however, that this battle is not bloody, for Death is only a false notion to begin with. Because “rest and sleep,” which are “pictures” of death, provide “pleasure,” Death itself must necessarily offer even more respite, which is why men often seek it: to find rest for their bones and freedom for their souls. Reducing Death to even lower status, the speaker continues to insult Death in the succeeding lines. It is a “slave,” which contrasts starkly with its own notion of being “mighty and dreadful,” and is akin to “poison, war, and sickness” as well as “poppy or charms” in its ability to destroy or seduce. Having established these qualities as evidence, the speaker presents his key question: if such is the case, how can Death think itself important? The word “swell’st” connotes the falseness of such pride, suggesting that it puffs itself up to hide its own misgivings about itself. Death is so insignificant, in fact, that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more.” The lower case “d” reduces the importance of death even more, putting it in the third person and as an object, denying it the importance of a subject and living idea. Thus, with concluding “Death, thou shalt die,” the speaker at once utters a paradox, which is that death permits eternal life as well as leverages his own importance, for in condemning Death to a sentence of death, he obtains control over it and therefore over his fears of it as well. Indeed, it is the voice of a preacher more than a supplicant of God that utters these final words in the poem.

Sonnet 11: Spit in My Face

 Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do...

(The entire section is 3,131 words.)